A mouse in the house

by Meredith McGovern, Art and Culture Collections Manager

Recently, I stumbled upon a couple of mice while reorganizing artifacts in one of our storage rooms. As a collections manager, this would normally count as one of my worst nightmares. However, these were not the kind of mice that smuggle crackers, peanuts and other snacks from the pantry! These were toys, two little windup rodents.

Toymakers have used steam, cranks and clockwork for hundreds and even thousands of years to make toys move, whether it be a leaping jack-in-the-box or a twirling ballerina en pointe inside a jewelry box. During the 19th century, toymakers started mass producing coils and keys, the parts that make windup toys move. They were able to make toys easier and cheaper; more children had the chance to own a windup, in many cases a toy mouse.

Meet this little guy from the Indiana State Museum collection — a gray suede mouse with black beady eyes and a string tail. The Schoch sisters who lived with their parents on the south side of Indianapolis played with this mouse, probably using it to torment their mother. When the key on its back was wound, a clockwork mechanism inside turned the brass wheels and sent the mouse scurrying across the floor. I can only imagine the Schoch sisters’ poor mother screaming bloody murder the first time the mouse raced between her feet! The sisters played with this toy sometime in the 1930s, but it might have been manufactured as early as the 1880s.

And here’s our somersaulting mouse, clearly an early knockoff of Mickey Mouse, made in the 1920s. This mouse features a brown velvet body and sports a pair of red felt shorts. When wound, his long, mechanical arms rotate, sending him tumbling head over feet! Advertisements for acrobatic windups from the late 19th century describe these toys as “exceedingly laughable and comical.” This little mouse sure knows how to put on a show!

Be sure to check out the museum’s collection of toys and other objects here .